Friday, September 9, 2011

Tokyo Godfathers (2003)

For his third feature film, director Satoshi Kon delves into a gritty reality stuffed with over the top comedy, a healthy helping of booze, a plot inspired by a John Wayne film, and a dash of Christmas spirit. It should come as no surprise that Tokyo Godfathers stands apart in his filmography, but does that mean it isn’t worth your time?

This is a tale of three homeless companions and their Christmas miracle. First there is Gin (Toru Emori) a boozy loser who seems to have given up at everything except drinking. Then there’s Hana (Yoshiaki Umegaki) a transvestite with a dream of being a mother. Finally there’s Miyuki (Aya Okamoto) a runaway who is hiding from her past.

One night these three unlikely souls find a baby abandoned in a pile of trash. At first Hana wants to keep it for his very own, but the other two convince him to do the right thing. They want him to take the baby to the police, but Hana goes on a quest to find the baby’s parents. The adventure takes them all across Tokyo encountering a huge variety of bizarre characters and circumstances. As the journey continues we learn more and more about these Tokyo Godfathers and that miracles still happen at Christmas – even in Japan.

Good Points:
  • Amazing detail and motion to the animation
  • Some of the most interesting characters in Kon’s work
  • Hilarious dialogue
Bad Points:
  • If you are not a fan of over the top anime style humor, you may want to skip this one
  • Kon keeps his flights of fancy to a minimum
  • Why is this animated?
While this isn’t his strongest work, it is for many people his most appealing. There is a lot of heart and humor on display, and if you’re in the right mood, this is a fun little movie. Animation-wise it’s got some amazing sequences, the finale car chase is a doozy. But I like Kon best when he is delving into the surreal. Some touches of that appear here, but mostly it’s a romp on a Christmas night.

Scores (out of 5)
Visuals: 5
Sound: 4
Voice Acting: 3
Script: 4
Music: 3
Direction: 4
Entertainment: 3
Total: 3

In Depth Review

Loosely based on 3 Godfathers a John Wayne film from 1948, Tokyo Godfathers could also be called 3 Hobos and a Baby, you know if you’re feeling cheesy. Like those two ‘80s movies, it takes a tragic story about an abandoned baby and turns into a source of comedy and adventure. But Kon is never one to let surface elements completely dictate his film, and so there are a lot of layers going on. You can enjoy it for it’s over the top moments and fun action sequence in the finale. But what keeps you watching is seeing how the lives of Gin, Hana and Miyuki were changed by their past decisions and how they change because of the adventure they have.

The heart of the film is the characters and its what you’ll always remember after viewing it. Each of them is multifaceted and has a lot more going on than they initially appear. Even Hana who seems to be solely around for the cross dressing jokes turns out to be a fully fleshed out character, a man who is truly a mother at heart.

Kon throws in a bit of Charles Dickens in his approach to the film. Nearly every character you meet in the film, even if it’s only a small part, has something to do with the main plot or will pop up again before the film ends. Coincidence falls upon coincidence and yet it all makes perfect sense. Kon dealt with the idea of fate in Millennium Actress and here it seems to pop up again. We can believe that all these things were destined to happen so that each character gets a fitting end, or we can just chalk it up to Hana’s theory that baby is magical and protected by God. By the end of the film, either option seems valid.

As far removed from Kon’s other work as Tokyo Godfathers appears, there are plenty of little moments where Kon’s amazing eye of the dreamlike and visually interesting kicks in. Most of the flashbacks in the film follow the style of his previous films. There is no transition, we just see a character, suddenly interacting with a different group of people in a different setting. It’s a bit jarring, but if you are familiar with his style it fits right in. Most of the flashbacks are key to the story, and Kon never overuses the concept. While Millennium Actress dealt directly with memories and concepts of reality, Tokyo Godfathers never gets that abstract. The flashbacks are simply storytelling devices. He also uses the dream style for a couple of fun interludes. My favorite is when a beaten and drunk Gin runs into the lovely Christmas Angel, only to have her go completely psycho on him.

Yet dreams are a theme of the movie. But instead of using forms of consciousness as the plot device, like he does in Paprika, Kon is focused on the goals and dreams of person and how they fail to meet them. Each of our leads had a dream they wanted to fulfill, but because of a mistake or a vice they end up ruining these dreams and end up living on street. These dreams constantly pop up in conversations and fuel the reactions and motivations of all three. All three have given up on their dreams and their lives, and Kon seems to be saying that once they find direction, they are redeemed. The journey to find the baby’s parents is a trial by fire for our heroes and while they all get burned at some point, they all are able to catch that dream again. You couldn’t expect anything else for a Christmas movie.

For Tokyo Godfathers, Kon had a bigger budget and was able to really make use of it. None of the shortcuts that hurt Perfect Blue or Millennium Actress are present here. Instead we get some amazing detail in the cityscape of Tokyo. I never really noticed it till this review of his work, but Kon loves his urban settings. They are present in all his directed work with the exception of Millennium Actress which focused on the movie elements of the story. Here the city is always in motion, surrounding us, noisy and a bit dirty. Since our leads are homeless they are often in some of the less attractive parts of the city, but Kon does get in some great shots of Tokyo Tower and other interesting backgrounds. More often we get a sense of decay. This adds another layer to the film. It never lets you forget that at the heart of this, is an urban world where a baby was left in a heap of garbage.

Beyond the setting there is the chase scene in the finale. The baby is abducted and our heroes must do everything in their power to save her. Kon unleashes all the stops here with the high-speed chase, the baby in peril and our heroes using what limited abilities they have to come to the rescue. It’s a kinetic blast and certainly a precursor for some of the amazing action work we’d see in Paprika. Even if the rest of the film never quite connects, I heartily recommend the finale of Tokyo Godfathers to any animation fans out there. They’ll get a blast out of it.

I watched the original Japanese voice version and it works really well. I always have a bit of trouble judging comedic performances in anime, because they tend to go over the top – way over the top. That’s the case here. Combined with the more realistic character design it would be too much. But many times the characters adopt exaggerated facial expressions, putting Jim Carrey to shame. In a way its reminiscent of what he did with the director Genya and his assistant in Millennium Actress, but he continues to use this in Paranoia Agent as well. In the end the performance fit the visual style, but I’m not a huge fan of the final result.

I’ll also comment on the musical score by Keiichi Suzuki. It fits the film and adds to its zaniness on a number of occasions. But most of the original score is over powered by the use of Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy” from his 9th symphony. Used in many a Christmas film, as well as many a ‘90s anime, it’s almost a cliché at this point. Whenever I hear it, I’m reminded of the powerful moment from Neon Genesis Evangelion when it’s used. But hell, even Die Hard used it, and it’s a Christmas movie! So when it pops up here a number of times, it’s both fitting and a bit distracting. I have to say I did start laughing when the end credits kicked in with a jazzy version of the tune accompanied by some hilarious animation.

In a way this is Kon’s lightest and most heartfelt work. He goes for the laughs, as well as the irony. His story is about redemption and hope even in the face of grime and despair. While he never came across as a pessimist to me (Perfect Blue, his darkest film, has a positive ending), I think his humor is most effective when its duel purposed and sly. His next two works have some great dark humor in them and it feels more genuine than some of mugging found in Tokyo Godfathers.

I’ll also admit that cementing the story so firmly in the reality of the characters took away from what I love about Kon’s work – the surreal. Tokyo Godfathers has some top class animation in it, and I can admire the technical skills it shows off. But the visual play and depth of meaning in images is greatly decreased in this film. Perhaps Kon felt that too much of his dream style would take away from the weight of the film, and maybe he’d be right. But I think it makes this film a little less interesting in comparison to the surrounding works.

So Kon made his Christmas movie about miracles and redemption. If you don’t mind a movie with its heart on its sleeve, some fun characters, over the top humor and a great chase scene, give Tokyo Godfathers a try. As of this writing the Sony release is still floating around on DVD, and it’s a solid presentation. I’ve run into a lot of folks who enjoy this movie a lot and never got into Kon’s other works, so this could be a Kon movie for people who don’t like the surreal. But if you’re up for some twists of reality and a healthy dose of dark humor, then check out what Kon does with a 13 episode television series called Paranoia Agent.


  1. Once again, a useful guide in a genre outside my expertise. It sounds fun.

  2. Yeah, give it a shot when you get a chance. and if you enjoy that I recommend checking out "Paprika". Its what "Inception" could have been. :)